“Adoption and teenhood are inextricably intertwined. Physical changes include growth spurts, weight gain and acne along with facial hair and voice changes for boys and periods for girls. When teens look more mature and sexually developed, they’re viewed differently, an experience which can be a mixed bag. In addition, sexual stereotypes and expectations come into play in the form of pressure and identity confusion. Some adoptees already feel like a stranger to themselves because they look and feel so different from their adoptive family. When they morph into this more mature being, they can feel even more lost and out of place.
Jessica was an eighth grader, adopted from Guatemala, who had been struggling to find her place in her new more developed body.

“Maybe I wasn’t wearing the right bra or something, but my friend and I were running on our track at school Saturday morning. There was this old guy and he was also running on the track. But then, when my friend and I were running, we noticed that he stopped on the side to get some water. It seemed like he was staring at us. I told my friend, ‘let’s go’ and we just left because it was kind of weirding us out.”

That man might have been leering at them or just taking a water break. But Jessica hadn’t had to think about herself as a sexual being before. And, even if that’s not what was happening then, it’s a reality that she will have to contend with.

Even if they’re not sexually active the idea of sex is evocative for adopted teens in two ways. For many adopted teens, their child by birth if they have one at some point will be their first known biological relative. There can be a longing to offer a newborn all of the continuity and care that they felt deprived of.

They can also now identify with their birth parents in a way that they couldn’t before, which is that they are now physically equipped to conceive and give birth to a child. Many birth or biological parents were teenagers at the time of relinquishment. For adoptees to know that they could do the same may scare but also intrigue them. Sometimes adopted teens aren’t even aware that they long to feel an emotional connection or intimacy with their birth mother which fuels the desire to have a baby by birth.

Thinking becomes more complex in the teen years. Teens become able think beyond “black and white.” With this developmental shift, they’re able to contemplate the “what ifs” and other intangible questions and possibilities. Adoptees are already haunted by those unanswerable questions but the teen years bring them to another level.

When adopted teens haven’t developed their cognitive complexity, it’s important to adjust expectations accordingly.

Samantha was a Russian adoptee, a freshman in high school. Samantha’s adoptive parents were frustrated and confused. “I keep telling her that she needs to figure out what she’s doing this summer. I don’t want her just sitting around texting and complaining all day like she did last summer. That was a disaster,” her parents lamented when they came in for a consultation.

I had had a session with Sam the previous week.

“I just don’t think about things like that,” she answered, when I asked her about whether she thinks about the future.

Although Samantha was a teen, she hadn’t yet learned to think abstractly. Although she experienced many feelings, facts were easier for her to understand. Given that, it made sense why her parents were hitting their heads against the wall waiting for her to initiate a summer plan, or any plan for that matter. Instead, I recommended that they offer her three options for the summer that she could choose from. If Samantha didn’t or couldn’t make the choice, her parents would make the decision.

As teens expand and develop their thinking they may also have the perception that they are the center of not just their world but everyone’s. Their angst is that no one has ever gone through what they have, no one can understand and no one has it worse than they do. For adopted teens though, there’s some truth in those feelings. Being an adoptee can be challenging and different in ways that are hard for others to understand or put into words.

In adoption and teenhood, establishing an identity is an important but daunting task, and at times elusive. Generally, teens are emotionally porous. They’re influenced by family along with peers and culture. Adopted teens, however, are influenced by their adoptive family and by any other families and caretakers they’ve had on this journey. Those families are alive and well in their psyche as they look towards young adulthood, whether they’re known or imagined.

Generally, teens are challenged to become independent and self-sufficient, which means that they can support themselves emotionally and financially. That’s a slippery process. One minute they seem more mature than you thought possible and the next they’re melting down in ways that you haven’t seen in years. Adopted teens feel pulled in opposite directions. On one hand, they know that it’s time to grow up. On the other hand, to distance from the care that they endured so much to get feels counterintuitive. To try to depend less on their adoptive parents is difficult because they feel more lost and alone, but is comforting because it suggests that they can take care of themselves.”

Excerpt from Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.” Join online or local groups to delve more deeply into these topics!